Is the “Yanny vs. Laurel” audio clip debate a sign of hearing loss or a government conspiracy? Why are some people hearing “Yanny” and some hearing “Laurel”? The question of what people hear and why they hear different words has become an obsession on social media. Not since the blue/black dress (or was it a white/gold dress?) has a debate raged by confusing our senses. First, they fooled with our eyes and now they’re fooling our ears.
It started with an audio clip that originated on Vocabulary.com, a resource website that, among other things, gives people definitions for words and provides audio clip so users can hear the proper pronunciation of words. On May 11, a student user of the site looked up the word “laurel” as it was a vocabulary word in her high school world literature homework. Katie Hetzel said she played the audio clip for the word “laurel” and what she heard was “yanny.”
After puzzling over this, she asked her classmates and they heard different things. So naturally she posted the audio clip to her Instagram account and it went viral with reposts on Reddit, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and starting arguments in just about every corner of the Internet.
“Yanny vs. Laurel” has even become a source for a conspiracy theory on The Howard Stern Show on Sirius/XM. One of Stern’s longtime callers known as “High Register Sean” was warning people about participating in the polls online over whether they heard “yanny” or “laurel.” “We need to tell everybody in your audience not to vote,” High Register Sean said to Stern.
High Register Sean, a noted conspiracy theorist who calls the show, wanted to warn Stern’s listeners that the clip was part of a mind control test. He claims the government created this test so it could learn (through listeners’ votes) which sound each voter hears.
“The one you don’t hear is the one that they’re going to use to silently control soldiers and eventually citizens,” Sean said. For his own protection, Sean wouldn’t disclose to Stern which sound he heard. Elaborating on his other theories, he said he knows these things because he has “a giant head and it’s filled with a giant brain.”
Now even the musician Yanni has weighed in on the debate, saying he only hears “yanny.” Yanni may be benefitting the most from the kerfuffle. It’s been 25 years since his 1993 breakthrough performance at the Acropolis in Athens, and this is by far the most his name has been spoken since then.
The secret to why people are hearing two very different sounds is due to the low quality of the recording, according to Brad Story, professor of speech, language and hearing at the University of Arizona. The recording is “not a very high quality,” he said, and people are listening on poor quality speakers through their smartphones, tablets, earbuds, etc.
Professor Story found that the resonance drops and rises in such a way that the sound is different for some people. He also noted that by changing the pitch (speed) of the recording both words could be heard.
Wired Magazine learned from Marc Tinkler, CTO and cofounder of Vocabulary.com, that the site wanted words to be read in the international phonetic alphabet (IPA) which features standardized sounds in any spoken language. They used opera singers who knew IPA to read the words. The man who read the word “laurel” appeared in the original cast of Cats on Broadway. He didn’t reveal his name, but said he recorded over 36,000 words for Vocabulary.com.
One auditory neuroscientist calls the “Yanny vs. Laurel” confusion an audio illusion. What you hear depends on an individual’s hearing ability. Hearing can be damaged through aging, years of listening to loud music or working in a loud environment. Many people lose some of their ability to hear certain frequencies. The ability to hear higher frequencies diminishes with age so older people may hear “laurel” and younger people are more likely to hear “yanny.”